The New Yorker has toyed with big-selling duet partners elsewhere, singing with The Weeknd and rapper ASAP Rocky on her 2017 album Lust for Life, but now her idea of a profitable union is very different. She’s pictured on the cover of her seventh album with 10 of her real-life friends. She has always looked and sounded like someone who could ruin your life in a Raymond Chandler novel, and today her fastidious aesthetic seems less connected than ever to the whizzy preoccupations of the livestreaming, TikTok-ing pop world. Her last release was a spoken word recording of her poetry. She opens Dance Til We Die with the lines: “I’m covering Joni and I’m dancing with Joan/Stevie’s calling on the telephone.” That’s Mitchell, Baez and Wonder to you.
The guest stars here are three less well-known female singer-songwriters: outlaw country singer Nikki Lane gets top billing on Breaking Up Slowly, while Zella Day and Weyes Blood join in on the aforementioned Joni cover. It’s a languid, sincere version of For Free, from the Ladies of the Canyon album.
Del Rey sounds like multiple ladies herself. She experiments in various ways with that vampish voice, adding a delicate sheen of Auto-Tune at the end of Tulsa Jesus Freak and forming a whole chorus of herself on Wild at Heart – a rare bit of “big” music. She sounds distant and crackly on part of Yosemite, as though singing into a Jazz Age microphone. Strangest of all is White Dress, the opener, which she has said was mostly ad-libbed while co-writer and producer Jack Antonoff noodled at the piano. She sings about listening to The White Stripes and Kings of Leon, sounding harsh and breathless as she tries to cram the unlikely words “Miami Music Business Conference” into one short line.
A lot of this album sounds improvised, loosely held together, and more introverted than its grand, dazzling predecessor, Norman F***ing Rockwell! Like its creator, it’s off in a world of its own, free of commercial obligations and revelling in that autonomy. It’s a lovely place to visit.